The Six Nations Rebels lacrosse team is keeping it together on the floor to continue a winning streak, despite suffering a huge loss off the floor — the death of a key player.
Nineteen-year-old Carney Elijah Johnson was “the heart and soul of the team,” players and management said. He died unexpectedly Aug. 6, during the team's last week of a provincial junior tournament.
Johnson played with the Rebels the night before his death, scoring a goal to secure the team's at-home win and gain a 2-0 lead in the series.
The next day, upon hearing the news, the team members gathered together to support each other at a coach's home. The day after the funeral, they gathered the strength to win the Ontario Lacrosse Association championships in Akwesasne.
Without a break from an emotional week, the Rebels now face the national-level championships, the Founders' Cup. It's an important tournament for the team. Six Nations, about 50 kilometres from Hamilton, where Johnson grew up, is hosting for the first time.
The team won its opening game against Kamloops 18-6 Tuesday night.
“We lost our heart and soul last week but we have to bounce, to bounce back,” said Rebels player Kevin Davey, exhausted and filled with adrenaline following their first Cup game. “We've gotta do it for him, we've gotta play our hearts out.”
The 19-year-old scored four goals during Tuesday night's game.
The team loved Johnson. He was a star player who was with the Rebels for three years. He could score, defend and, if needed, fight.
“He was the big brother of the team. He would stick up for anybody,” Davey said. “He was an amazing person on and off the floor. A really, really amazing person.”
Losing such a vital part of the team could have torn the Rebels apart but instead, the reminder of how fragile life is made them stronger.
“The boys really became a tighter group throughout this whole thing,” said general manager Wray Maracle. “You know he's here one day and the next day he's gone and you never know when that can happen.”
At the opening Cup game, Johnson's jersey hung behind the team's bench while his friends scored consecutive goals in his honour.
Replacing him on the floor is not an option, Davey said, they can't play “the way Carney plays.” Instead, they “play with that heart and that drive.”
The Rebels have at least four more games ahead of them before they can claim the Founder's Cup. With Johnson's help, the team won the national championship last year in Saskatoon.
“Every game we play, everything we do from now on is all for him. It's all for Carney,” Davey said.